Putting the ‘social’ back into social housing

For many years, Ellis Jones has undertaken social research, co-design, community engagement, marketing and design work across many different building forms: from residential apartments and master planned communities to residential aged care, retirement living and social housing. This article is a summary of recent discussions we have had among our team and collaborator network about social housing stakeholder engagement.

Somewhere, sometime, it appears Australian communities forgot about the social in ‘social housing’.

Google ‘world’s best social housing projects’ and you will admire fine architecture: colourful facades, modernist statements, ‘artist’s impressions’.

Architecture is important. Externally, the visual presence, impact on shade, airflow, temperature and traffic flow, forms part of the daily lived experience of local neighbourhoods. Within, architecture more instructively shapes the lives of residents: light, space, navigation, connectivity, cohesion.

But architecture – and all the impacts listed above – is not the goal of social housing. Neither is housing for that matter.

Social housing is about the society we live in. A society that acknowledges diversity of privilege, fortune, abilities and needs. A society that knows it is stronger when everyone has access to appropriate standards of health, wellbeing and income.

If we allow the narrative of social housing to continue to be one of bricks and mortar, of development mix – to focus on facades not lives – we miss the point; we narrow the focus to short term impacts rather than long term outcomes.

Importantly, this is also not a narrative about ‘poor people’. It is about all of us.

What lives do we want Australians to lead? What is our role, as individual citizens, in the strengthening of Australian society as one of the world’s most admired? What does this look and feel like, locally, in the streets and community spaces we inhabit every day?

The Victorian Government’s Homes for Victorians strategy is the most exciting community building initiative for our state in many, many years.

Its legacy will be architectural but, more importantly, it can be about how the state – with its enduring history of egalitarianism, multiculturalism and social justice – addresses the growing call for equality most Australians feel. It can build stronger, more cohesive communities.

Melbourne is home to inspired and experienced planners, artists, community workers, architects and developers who can co-design a new approach to social housing that is both pragmatic and visionary. We can lead Australia, and the world.

The socio-economic context

Homes for Victorians, sets expectations that the government will be pragmatic – solve the structural problems of capital, land supply, housing markets skewed by legacy policies, and upgrades to social housing – and be human-centred: ‘every Victorian deserves the safety and security of a home’.

Most of Victoria’s social housing earmarked for renewal sits within northern and western suburbs that are traditionally home to socially aware, diverse communities. However, they have undergone extreme gentrification in a very short period of time. With property prices at challenging multiples of family incomes and the ever-present threat of interest rate rises, owner occupiers and investors aggressively protect asset values.

Despite the diverse community contexts, one outcome will be absolutely critical: if local community residents cannot connect with the social motive of developments, they will resist any impacts.

That resistance is likely to point to the greater numbers of social housing residents (and social problems), increased traffic congestion, threats to safety and amenity, inappropriate building form, etc. Already, academic and media reporting has highlighted that the social mix use model has challenges, providing grounds for neighbourhoods and social housing residents who don’t want change.

Busy living their lives, so many Victorians are not aware of the social housing that already exists in their local area and the positive impact it has on residents but also themselves. This can often be practiced ignorance.

When development begins, the spell will be broken and Victorians can be invited to ask themselves, ‘what kind of people are we’.

A new narrative for social housing

With an innovative, human-centred response, we can engage community residents and, more broadly, Victorians in a new narrative for social housing.

Using a mix of well-established place identity, social impact, behavioural change and design theory/practice, there will be opportunities to link localised narratives, programs and activities, measure and report on effectiveness, and achieve cost efficiencies via economies of scale.

The groundswell of activity and related publicity, and the real connections made between people, could reduce the likelihood of complaints and balance opinion. It will see community residents form connections with each other that they did not previously have.

Within neighbourhoods, the initiative may ultimately establish the perception of social housing construction and renewal as a community project – achieved via taxpayer investment and local community action.

It will be an active expression of ‘our community, our responsibility, our opportunity’.

“The achievements for every relevant community will be greater social cohesion and a proud physical legacy (a stronger sense of place).”

Although it has serious intent, activities and associated communication will evoke a sense of collaboration, shared purpose and, ultimately, creative fun.

There are international examples of this being successfully achieved.

Granby Four Streets (Liverpool, UK) began as a mission to protect heritage and culture but is now delivering mix use social and private housing in an area that governments and developers had turned their back on. An associated art installation won the coveted Turner Prize. http://www.granby4streetsclt.co.uk/

Cubitt Wall (London) rethinks the concept of development site hoardings. Built for the billion dollar redevelopment of Kings Cross in London it is a new typology of public space, encouraging the public to freely interpret, inhabit and occupy it. The space has been used as an open air gallery, cinema, performance space and football pitch. http://miriamandtom.com/works/cubitt-wall/


The outcomes will be born as much from the process as from the final result.

  • Stronger community cohesion and identity, and a whole of community experience (not an act of charity).
  • A reduction in the visual and physical impact of (re)development.
  • Local communities co-creating programs, public amenity and permanent/ephemeral artwork.
  • Local communities sharing and communicating their stories.
  • Quality social housing and design perceived to, and actually, underpin neighbourhood house prices.
  • Greater awareness of Victoria’s social challenges and the government’s strategies to address them.
  • A best practice model to be applied to all new developments, and admired in years to come.

In summary, this is a moment in time – a chance for the government and Victorian communities to see beyond the individual housing projects to a vision of what a strong community is, and does.

A return to our social democratic values.

Image credit: Granby Four Streets CLT